Infamy and Dying Young: Sarah Kane, 1971–1999

  • Mary Luckhurst


If there is one thing that commentators on Sarah Kane’s celebrity agree on it is the suddenness of its advent. Before the Royal Court opening of her first play, Blasted, on 12 January 1995, few had heard of her; the morning after the press night she was on the front page of the tabloids and by the end of the run her reputation as a theatrical enfant terrible was established.1 When she died unexpectedly in 1999 The Times claimed that Blasted had ‘shot her from nowhere to notoriety’, the Guardian described her debut ‘as the most controversial of recent times’, and the Independent portrayed her as the woman who ‘shot to notoriety and front-page prominence at the age of 23’.2 From the moment Kane came to public attention she provoked outrage at her raw depiction of sex and violence, and though she later tried to redefine herself, she never shook off the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied her abrupt ascent to fame.


Evening Standard Sexual Fantasy Daily Mail Artistic Director Sunday Time 
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  1. 1.
    See Tom Sellar, ‘Truth and Dare: Sarah Kane’s Blasted’, in Theater 27 (1997), 29–34.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Anonymous, Times obituary, 23 February 1999; Anonymous, Guardian obituary, 23 February 1999; Paul Taylor, in the Independent, 23 February 1999.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Though one or two affected an air of nonchalance and wondered why she had not gone further. See Jane Edwardes, Time Out, 25 January 1995; and Jonathan Miller, Sunday Times, 22 January 1995.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Michael Coveney, Observer, 5 February 1995; John Peter, Sunday Times, 29 January 1995.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Nick Curtis, Evening Standard, 19 January 1995. 7 Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 19 and 20 January 1995.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Paul Taylor, Independent, 20 January 1995; Michael Billington, Guardian, 20 January 1995; Robert Hewison, Sunday Times, 22 January 1995; and Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 20 January 1995.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Charles Spencer, 20 January 1995; see, for example, John Gross, Sunday Telegraph, 22 January 1995; Nick Curtis, Evening Standard, 19 January 1995; John Peter, Sunday Times, 29 January 1995.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    For example, Jane Edwardes, Time Out, 25 January 1995; David Nathan, Jewish Chronicle, 27 January 1995; Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 20 January 1995 -‘a lazy, tawdry piece of work without an idea in its head beyond an adolescent desire to shock’; Nick Curtis, Evening Standard, 19 January 1995 — ‘an artful chamber of horrors designed to shock and nothing more’; Sheridan Morley, Spectator, 28 January 1995 — ‘To shock in the theatre is perfectly forgivable, but it is not enough: you also have to have something you want to say.’Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    I have made this point before. See Mary Luckhurst, ‘An Embarrassment of Riches: Women Dramatists in 1990s Britain’, in British Drama of the 1990s, ed. A. Knapp, E. Otto, G. Stratmann and M. TOnnies (Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 2002), p. 73. Vera Gottlieb is of the same view; see ‘Lukewarm Britannia’, in Theatre in a Cool Climate, ed. Vera Gottlieb and Colin Chambers (Oxford: Amber Lane, 1999), p. 211. Gottlieb also wonders whether the press reaction contributed to Kane’s death. Aleks Sierz has no doubt that ‘the main reason for the outrage … seemed to be that Kane, the author of such horrors, was young (twenty-three at the time) and a woman’, but his conviction that if ‘they [critics] had not overreacted, the play would have been a quiet success, perhaps playing to half-full houses of Royal Court regulars’ cannot be proved. See ‘The Element that Most Outrages: Morality, Censorship and Sarah Kane’s Blasted’, in Morality and Justice: The Challenge of European Theatre ed. Edward Batley and David Bradby (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2001), p. 235.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    See Graham Saunders, ‘Love Me or Kill Me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 3. See also Graham Saunders, ‘The Apocalyptic Theatre of Sarah Kane’, in British Drama of the 1990s, ed. A. Knapp, E. Otto, G. Stratmann and M. Tonnies, pp. 123–35.Google Scholar
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    Sarah Kane’s father was a tabloid journalist at the time, so there may have been other agendas too.Google Scholar
  12. 19.
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  14. 21.
    Aleks Sierz, In-yer-face Theatre: British Drama Today (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p. 98.Google Scholar
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    This alleged counter-culture was doubted as early as 1960 by Caryl Churchill: … already the working-class intellectual cracking at his wife’s caricatured Daddy is a stock character. We know the English are still snobbish about accents, we’re not happy about the British Empire, suburban life is often dull and many middleaged men are unfulfilled. We can’t communicate with each other, have a lot of illusions and we don’t know what if anything life is about. All right. Where do we go from here?’ Cited in Philip Roberts, The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 78. See also Dan Rebellato’s analysis, 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama (London: Routledge, 1999).Google Scholar
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    See Elaine Aston, Feminist Views on the English Stage: Women Playwrights, 1990–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 79.Google Scholar
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    See Observer, 22 January 1995; Saunders, ‘Love Me or Kill Me’, p. 146.Google Scholar
  18. 31.
    In his negotiations for the position of Artistic Director, Daldry reported: ‘Once I understood the political game playing I thought I’d just do the same. If this is going to be played this way in the newspapers, I’11 start ringing up the newspapers if they all are…. I thought this is a playpen. I’11 get in the playpen and start throwing a bit of sand about and see what happens.’ Cited in Philip Roberts, The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage, p. 215.Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    See Sierz, In-yer-face Theatre, p. 30. The main problem with Sierz’s thesis is the difficulty he has in providing sufficiently distinctive common features for a very large number of playwrights.Google Scholar
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    Sarah Kane, Complete Plays (London: Methuen, 2001), pp. 98–103.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    Paul Taylor, Independent, 23 May 1996; Michael Billington, Guardian, 21 May 1996.Google Scholar
  22. 39.
    Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard, 7 May 1998; Bill Hagerty, News of the World, 17 May 1998; Robert Gore-Langton, Express, 10 May 1998.Google Scholar
  23. 43.
    Michael Billington, Guardian, 7 May 1998; John Gross, Sunday Telegraph, 10 May 1998; Michael Coveney, DailyMail, 7 May 1998; Georgina Brown, Mail on Sunday, 24 May 1998.Google Scholar
  24. 45.
    David Greig, in a paper on ‘Political Theatre’ at the conference ‘British Drama in the 1990s’ held at the University of the West of England, 7 September 2002. Greig is an unequivocal admirer of Kane’s work, as is evident in his introduction to her Complete Plays, pp. i—xviii. It was the Court’s publicity machine and production values to which he was objecting.Google Scholar
  25. 46.
    Christopher Innes, Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 530. Interestingly, Kane herself had mixed feelings about the exhibition: see Saunders, ‘Love Me or Kill Me’, p. 28.Google Scholar
  26. 48.
    Chris Smith, Creative Britain (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 9. The cover showed two of Damian Hirst’s paintings.Google Scholar
  27. 49.
    State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting ed. David Edgar (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 28.Google Scholar
  28. 51.
    Michael Kustow argues that ‘managing and marketing had become the end of public arts activity, not just its means’ in the 1980s. See Michael Kustow, theatre@risk (London: Methuen, 2000), p. 165.Google Scholar
  29. 53.
    For details on the British Council’s repositioning of itself, see Jen Harvie, ‘Nationalising the “Creative Industries”’, in Contemporary Theatre Review, 13:1 (2003), 15–32.Google Scholar
  30. 61.
    Kane was adamant that movements were media inventions and of no interest to the writers concerned. See Graham Saunders, ‘Love Me or Kill Me’, p. 7.Google Scholar
  31. 62.
    Simon Hattenstone, Guardian (Weekend), 1 July 2000. For the actual production she reverted to her own name.Google Scholar
  32. 64.
    Dominic Cavendish, Independent, 15 August 1998; Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard, 24 August 1998; Georgina Brown, Mail on Sunday, 23 August 1998.Google Scholar
  33. 65.
    See, for example, Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, 22 August 1998; Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard, 24 August 1998; and Michael Billington, Guardian, 15 August 1998.Google Scholar
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    Michael Billington, Guardian, 15 August 1998; Michael Coveney, Daily Mail, 18 August 1998.Google Scholar
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    Michael Billington, Guardian, 30 June 2000; Stephen Fay, Independent on Sunday, 2 July 2000; Robert Gore-Langton, Express, 30 June 2000; Sheridan Morley, Spectator, 8 July 2000.Google Scholar
  36. 77.
    James Macdonald likened Kane to Sylvia Plath, and was very wary of any reading of her work through her suicide. Buzz Goodbody was a brilliant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company who took her own life just as her pioneering production of Hamlet was opening in 1975. See Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 330.Google Scholar
  37. 80.
    See, for example, Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992). Bronfen examines representations of women’s death in art and literature and concludes that the female corpse is a site where cultural anxiety about death can locate itself.Google Scholar
  38. 82.
    Eyre and Wright, Changing Stages, p. 376. Innes, Modern British Drama, p. 529, argues unconvincingly that Kane’s work marks a new departure in feminist drama. David Ian Rabey writes interestingly on Kane’s confrontational experiments with spectatorship, but concludes his book with a very sentimental panegyric, see British Drama since 1940 (London: Longman, 2003), pp. 207–9. Merle Tonnies fruitfully compares Kane’s endeavours with the nineteenth-century fin-de-siecle; see ‘The “Sensationalist Theatre of Cruelty” in 1990s Britain’, in (Dis)Continuities: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English, ed. M. Rubik and E. Mettinger-Schartmann (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2002), pp. 57–71.Google Scholar
  39. 84.
    Simon Kane, see Simon Hattenstone, Guardian (Weekend), 1 July 2000.Google Scholar

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© Mary Luckhurst 2005

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  • Mary Luckhurst

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